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What's more important? Parental presence or top schooling?
February 15, 2014 10:49 AM   Subscribe

Okay, this may well be a false choice but I'm trying to sort this out in my mind -- I see two roads ahead of us, one in which we stay where we are currently living -- an underwater house in good shape in a middling-to-poor neighborhood (but with adjacent nicer amenities) -- which is affordable and where we are making enough money to save for all the things we need to save for (retirement, college, cash savings, etc.). OR, we can buy our way into a nicer neighborhood and school district, keeping this house as a rental. Right now my husband and I are both working at well-paying jobs and our 3-year-old is in full-time daycare. My goal, when she starts kindergarten in 3 years, is to work 3/4 or less time, so that I am home with her after school and do to this for the rest of her school years.

So, I see it this way, if we stay in this house we have financial flexibility. However, it's a tiny house in a kind-of-crappy neighborhood with a bad elementary school and a middling middle school. There are currently some families nearby with kids her age which is a plus. We like our neighbors and the house is in good shape. We've discussed renovation but if we renovate, I don't see how we can leave anytime soon. If we stay here, we can lottery her into the nearby better schools and, if she doesn't get in, pay for private school. I really want either her Dad or I to be home with her after school and I think that I'll be able to swing that when the time comes. However, the likelihood of doing this relies on us being able to afford it, yes?

The other road is to, essentially, pre-pay our way into a better school district, which also means a nicer neighborhood (with sidewalks! and homes that aren't falling down! and maybe a coffee shop!) but we'd likely need to keep this house as a rental. Which means maintenance costs, prop tax rising on both properties every year, and a bigger chunk of our income going to our new mortgage payment. With both of us working full-time, I think we can do this, though we'd need to pay for after-care after school and I worry that my hope of being home with her in the afternoon wouldn't work -- we'd simply have too many expenses for me to take a pay-cut. Paying for retirement would be leaner but there is the hope that this little house we are in could be sold eventually for a tidy profit which can go toward college or retirement.

Anyway, in my mind, it boils down to this question: What is more important? A very good school, with likely increased out of pocket costs? Or a parent at home after the school day is done?

It's nice to have options right now -- after 4 years of underemployment, I'm finally gainfully employed at a well-paying job and so we can think about these things. But there's so many (expensive and varied) paths we could go that I'm trying to pick the things that are most important to me and work backward from there. Obviously, many times people have chosen education over parental presence (boarding school!) but she is our one and only child and I had both parental presence and a good education growing up so it's hard for me to choose between the two.
posted by amanda to Work & Money (32 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm not quite seeing the either/or here -- you said you can stay where you are and still be able to lottery or pay for her to get into a better school. That seems like the perfect compromise.
posted by jaguar at 10:53 AM on February 15


Have you considered pursuing a short sale on your current property?
posted by slidell at 11:02 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]


Top schooling. The peer groups are more important than the parents. Probably not in kindergarten, though.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 11:04 AM on February 15 [5 favorites]


Anecdotally, my affluent, privately-schooled friends with absent parents have a shitload of problems these days.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:05 AM on February 15 [16 favorites]


You can supplement a bad public education with extra tutoring and academic coaching on the side to keep her ahead of classmates.
posted by discopolo at 11:10 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]


My kids are in the "poor" schools in our town. They are both in gifted/honors programs. They have wonderful teachers and the kids they see every day are happy to be at school and eager to learn. I couldn't be happier with their education. I'd suggest talking to other parents with older kids to get the story that numbers don't tell.
posted by Requiax at 11:11 AM on February 15 [3 favorites]


I don't think you can supplement enough to make up for lackluster public schools, unless all the other parents feel the same way. Being the only kid in class who goes to extra lessons, etc. will be a path to exclusion for years. I'd say, suck it up, go for the better school district and find parents you can stand to hang out with for the next dozen years. If you don't have connections with other parents, your kid will miss out on stuff.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:18 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]


What do you want most? What will leave you least stressed out? Which choice will make you happiest? This is your life, too, and a parent's mood and happiness are also very important to the happiness of their child.
posted by imalaowai at 11:23 AM on February 15 [3 favorites]


Taking care of a rental house + tenant issues is a LOT of work. How would you find the time? And what if you get stuck with a deadbeat tenant? Seems like a risky investment.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:26 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]


I am a first grade teacher at a "bad" public school. My children go to our neighborhood (lower-middle class) "bad" public school. TEST SCORES DO NOT TELL THE STORY! The relationships at the school tell much of the story. Your involvement and the extras that you can provide will make the difference. Extra opportunities provided by you (lessons, outings, museums, etc.) will NOT be a path to exclusion for your kids. I have been both the parent and the teacher in these situations, and have never seen that happen. I would 100% vote for the path that allows extra income and more time for your presence. Just my opinion. (I'm sorry, I don't mean to yell. I'm just so tired of the "bad" school stories. With the new Common Core, ALL schools will be teaching the exact same standards. We are all under absolutely impossible pressure, with standardizing all kids and limited funds and time. I know that you will make the right choice for you and your family : ) )
posted by Cloudberry Sky at 11:28 AM on February 15 [11 favorites]


If you move to the new place, could you find another way to be home after school? You could go in early? Or perhaps you could negotiate for a shorter schedule when they tell you that your performance deserves a raise but the agency can't afford one?
posted by slidell at 11:30 AM on February 15


In my opinion, your child needs you more than a good school right now. If I were going to move to a school district for the school, I would do it in middle or high school.

I didn't really feel like I started learning anything challenging til middle/high school, anyway, and my family moved once every couple years and my parents made sure to keep me in good programs. If they go to college, high school is the school that's going to prepare them for that.

By middle/high school, they'll be ready to start spending a lot of time hanging out with their friends, and your physical presence, while important, won't be as critical as during their younger years.
posted by aniola at 11:31 AM on February 15 [2 favorites]


Extra opportunities provided by you (lessons, outings, museums, etc.) will NOT be a path to exclusion for your kids.

Being one of the smartest / most educated kids in the room CAN be a path to exclusion, sorry. When your parents point out to the school that they already taught you everything being taught in the kindergarten and first grade math classes, and the school handles this by having you study math with the second graders, you're suddenly different from your kindergarten peers and also trying to navigate your relationship (as an outsider) with the second graders. How schools handle needs of advanced kids and the social impacts of those various approaches vary a lot, but it's a reasonable question.
posted by slidell at 11:44 AM on February 15 [2 favorites]


Freakonomics covers this subject in Chapter 5. I don't have the book in front of me or I'd recommend you explore the citations on that chapter. But the way the authors frame it, school choice matters very little.

The studies they cite involve the Chicago lottery system, in which nearly 1 in 3 students apply to attend a high school outside their neighborhood. The studies found that students who applied to switch and were rejected faired no better than those who switched. But crucially, both groups outperformed those who didn't even apply.

I take these results to mean that parental presence is more important than improved schooling. Which is somewhat surprising given how rarely the chapter shows parents having any measurable impact. In fact out of a list of 30 factors from a detailed longitudinal government study that might be related to test scores, only 8 really matter, and neighborhood location is not among them.

I highly recommend you put the book on reserve in your nearest library, and at least read chapter 5, and then consider locating some of the citations via Google Scholar.
posted by pwnguin at 11:45 AM on February 15 [2 favorites]


Neither of my kids went to school - we homeschooled them K-12. One is doing great in college now, the other was just offered a full-ride academic scholarship to a large state school. School isn't even necessary for a good education. Involved parents, whether they are homeschooling, in a middling public school, or in some upper achiever magnet school, is still the single most deterministic factor is childhood education success.
posted by COD at 11:47 AM on February 15 [2 favorites]


Cloudberry Sky, I totally appreciate what you're saying and we are going to go and give our district under-performing school a real look in case we do stay here and see how it looks on the inside. I hope I can give it a fair shake. But, right now, when we have so many roads to consider, the local school goes into the "con" column. The nearby likely contenders for lottery are not the city's best, either, but they are showing a lot better.
posted by amanda at 12:16 PM on February 15


Depends on how bad your "bad" neighborhood is.

I can tell you that "better" schools sometimes have more trouble with the affluent kids in them when the kids hit high school. I have experience with that as I stayed in a school district that was "better" for my kids at that level. Two were fine-the education was fine-the third went a bit haywire at the end.

Just how underwater are you, and would paying more on your principal for three years put you in a better spot for selling?

Also, renting out your property, bear in mind that you will still be responsible for repairs, etc. and some renters are not as careful with your property as you would like. If you do go this route, make very sure you have a good property manager. Because trust me, it is worth it to have someone between you and the tenant, who will screen them and who won't let emotion trump good business practice.

In the long run it is up to you. But if it were me savings and time with the kidlet would win out. You never know what the future holds, and living below your means is never a bad choice.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:16 PM on February 15 [4 favorites]


Is the "bad" school within walking distance? If so, it does have the upside of exercise to/from school and spontaneous playdates with friends. The early primary years of school (at least K-2) are more social than educational if you do supplementary reading at home. Being able to play with kids at the last minute is a huge plus in building childhood relationships.

Also - do you know how to find after school care? For us this has been a very real and expensive problem.
posted by crazycanuck at 12:30 PM on February 15 [1 favorite]


Consider homeschooling and achieve both active parenting and quality education. If not, good, involved parents and a strong family life in a mediocre neighborhood are far better for a child than bad parents who are more involved in increasing the finances than in their kids. A "good" school district cannot make up for that. A "better-off" neighborhood doesn't remove the negatives; it just switches them up for more expensive ones.
posted by stormyteal at 12:58 PM on February 15 [1 favorite]


Mom at home and friends in the neighborhood to run around with sounds like a rich, fun life for a little kid -- one in which she'd learn a lot, I'd expect. I'd stick around in this house for now. You can always reassess at middle school.
posted by rue72 at 12:59 PM on February 15


To clarify why I see this as two choices: we would greatly like to live in a slightly bigger house in a better neighborhood...for a very long time. But, just the next step up, is quite a jump in mortgage+prop taxes, etc. That plus the costs of maintaining our existing home as a rental, plus trying to save for a rainy day, retirement means that I don't think I will have the flexibility to cut my hours. It's just too many expenses. So, better school but two full-time working parents.

To stay here means sticking with our house that feels a bit cramped and not being able to do much with it if we think we'll eventually want to sell when the market comes back (if ever in this 'hood, hard to say). And, of course, the feeling that we are missing our opportunity to take a step up and take advantage of great rates and somewhat more affordable housing market. But, staying here means I can just about guarantee the ability to be more present for my kid when I think kids really do need it -- during elementary, middle school, beyond.
posted by amanda at 1:00 PM on February 15


Ok, here's my story. We were early thirties, living in a very cool, progressive neighborhood in the city. Great little house, close to university, neighborhood feel, but a little rough around the edges. Lots of friends around and a very good Catholic elementary school right around the corner. We decided to have a second child, and needed a bigger house. After weighing all the pros and cons, we put our money into a large suburban house in a good school district, figuring that after twenty years we would have "saved up" our money by having equity instead of paying for private schools. So that's what we did, and that's the way it worked out. One of our kids loved the suburban setting, one did not. And we adults never really fit in, and made only three really good friends in the twenty years we lived there. We did amass a huge amount of equity and cashed in the minute our youngest left high school, according to our master plan, and moved back to the vibrant city. Our kids did get a good education, but not as good as in private schools, i don't think. And my opinion is that parental involvement is the biggest factor in educating a child.

Looking back, we would probably have been happier as a family if we had stayed in the neighborhood that suited our lifestyle and reflected our values. It was twenty long years in the wasteland of suburbia, and we are so much happier since we left. So my advice is to find the neighborhood that fits your family, and live there. You have to make a life for yourself, and for your family. That's the most important thing.
posted by raisingsand at 1:11 PM on February 15 [8 favorites]


I want to echo what Cloudberry Sky is saying. I am a parent of a kid at a "bad" elementary school. The ratings only tell you what test scores are, which only tell you what the neighborhood demographics are. The school across town gets a 10/10 rating because most families are upper-middle class English as a first language - those people's kids test very well!

My son's elementary school is a 6/10 because it's a diverse neighborhood ranging from upper-middle class to on the poverty line families. English is a second language to a decent chunk of the kids, so of course they don't test as well.

But at elementary school, are test scores a good representation of what your child needs to get out of the experience? I chose my son's school (we actually permitted in to it) because the staff were friendly and engaging with parents; it has a progressive curriculum for a public school - teachers are actively working to integrate inquiry-based learning into every day classes; the student body is diverse and represents the reality of who my son will interact with in the future; the PTA is strong and involved, even organizing afterschool classes as well as family events and fundraisers.

So go and look at the school, maybe it doesn't suit you, but maybe you will find an unexpectedly wonderful school. That would give you a few years to build up equity in your house and progress your careers.
posted by Joh at 2:08 PM on February 15


I am on my phone so can't link but studies have repeatedly shown that schooling has a much lower affect on outcomes, educational and otherwise, than commonly assumed. The most important thing, by far, is education level of parents followed by their income. Schooling environment has a weak effect, especially for the "winners", aka kids with good home environments, which yours will have.
posted by smoke at 2:43 PM on February 15 [2 favorites]


Ps I have studied the sociology of education, truly, I am not talking out of my arse.
posted by smoke at 2:45 PM on February 15


God, somehow I knew you lived in Portland as I was reading your question. I have a 13 year old and a 3 year old, live in North Portland, and have struggled/am struggling with the same thing. This has been my experience:

We actually did elementary (and now transferred to a k-8 - long story) in the "at risk neighborhood" instead of fleeing to the suburbs to give the schools time to change. They didn't. They won't. PPS is broken. But! We - and she - have found it to be a good experience. It absolutely is all about how much time and energy you invest in the school and your child's education, your relationship with school staff, and your involvement. Most elementary schools in town are pretty good, despite the numbers and test scores; the difference between great and good (what are you looking at? the Portland weekly guide?) are almost negligible, having had our oldest in both.

Do not count on lotteries. You can actually look up the lottery spaces vs acceptance numbers here and they are grim. The other thing to consider is that even if you lottery into a good school for elementary, you are back at your neighborhood school for middle/high. The high school lotteries are completely closed now, and I don't see that changing.

Now that our oldest is moving into high school in the next couple years, I am seriously thinking again about moving. At the same time, I know that if I can't, she will probably be ok (and she would go to Roosevelt. Roosevelt! It's not even RATED it's failing so hard) because she has a great support system, and both of her parents and extended family are super involved in her schooling.

Long story short: I think that if you wanted to put it off for another 8 or 10 years, you totally could.
posted by lilnublet at 2:52 PM on February 15 [2 favorites]


+1 to thinking about a short sale on your current place. Owning a rental property is a lot of work and expense, and in many cases you won't break even. If you could sell your place you'd have more resources to approach this question.
posted by town of cats at 4:26 PM on February 15


I'm in the opposite position as Cloudberry Sky - I work in one of the top public schools in the country, in a suburb that people move to for the schools. Students at our school get an enviable education and are well-prepared for college.

And yet. I would advise you not to do it. Don't move for the schools if it means spending less time with your kid. Seriously, don't do it.

There are so many reasons.

1. Every single study that has ever been done about this reports that parents have a greater impact than schools in student success. [It's true that this isn't zero-sum - that is, you could still be a good parent while not being home right after school - but the studies speak to the fact that students with caring, attentive parents are going to be just fine in most schools.]

2. Schools don't determine destinies in the way that the media often frames it. A curious, engaged, intelligent, hard-working student at pretty much any school can get a good education. Particularly if their parents encourage them to embrace their interests, get really involved in the things they're passionate about, and broaden their own horizons. Which is, in the end, a really important lesson.

3. College costs are insane. Long-term, your child is going to be in a much better position if you can put away a lot of money for college so they don't have to take out loans when they get there, than if you move to an area where they can go to a somewhat better high school.

But most importantly, I think you have to ask yourself what you really value, and what values you want to instill in your child. This is a really personal thing, of course, and I won't pretend that I know you well enough to know what decision you should make.

But I will tell you where I'm coming from.

I live in the city and commute to the suburbs to work in a fancy school - and if I have kids, I can send them to this school district (the best in the state, according to the tests). But I won't. If I have kids I want them to value diversity. I want them to understand what poor and middle-class people's lives are like. I want them to know people who aren't just like them. I want them to meet people from other countries. The students I see who have spent their lives growing up in the perfect little suburbs are lacking in some fundamental knowledge about what this country really is, in my experience.
posted by leitmotif at 6:43 PM on February 15 [10 favorites]


My son goes to an "under performing" public magnet school. All the special needs kids from the city go there too. That drags down the test scores. The school is also fed by a housing project and a fairly affluent neighborhood.

But you know? That school is getting Federal money as the state budget shrinks and just hired 6 new TAs. It's two teachers for every 20 kids now. Beat that with a stick.

My kid wanted a wheelchair for Xmas, handles the full range of the autism spectrum with ease and thinks most people are not white. I moved out of the county and am going to keep him there.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 6:52 PM on February 15 [2 favorites]


If we stay here, we can lottery her into the nearby better schools and, if she doesn't get in, pay for private school. I really want either her Dad or I to be home with her after school and I think that I'll be able to swing that when the time comes. However, the likelihood of doing this relies on us being able to afford it, yes?

If your finances go kablooey, it's a hell of a lot easier to pull a kid out of private school than it is to sell a house. For me, personally, that would cement my decision.

If you move and have to keep your current house, now you have not just one but TWO houses waiting to hoover up your money. Two furnaces, two roofs, two foundations. You are betting some of your retirement on the real estate market. You are committing your finances to a two-income model for the next 30 years, which means not only can you probably not go 3/4-time, but you shouldn't get cancer, either.

If you stay, you will have so much more breathing room and you have the income available to finance a private education if it comes to that (and a lot of families do a combination of some kind- primary and high public, middle private; primary and middle private, high magnet/special public program; primary public, middle and high private...you'll have more options to choose from at each stage. I mean, imagine if your daughter goes to a lottery school K-5 or even your neighborhood school, then you send her to St. Fancypants for middle and high. You'll have six years of primary school savings to put towards it, plus maybe you go back to work full-time because St. Fancypants has nine batrillion afterschool activities every day from 3-5.).

If I were you, I would stay put and feel SMUG about it.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 9:09 PM on February 15


Having done some admissions interviewing for an Ivy League university... the kids who'd performed stellarly (in extracurriculars, leadership, etc., as well as academics) despite going to not-great high schools were MUCH more impressive as candidates than kids who were simply one of a herd of similarly high-achieving students in a top area school. While my sample size is small, my impression is that final admissions decisions favored the former sort of student, as well.
posted by Bardolph at 8:53 AM on February 16 [2 favorites]


I am almost exactly in your position. I have a 3 year old in full-time day care, and my husband and I both work. We live in a small (<1200 sq ft) house in a neighborhood that has terrible public schools and no sidewalks. I think the neighborhood is a good trade for financial safety and flexibility. I personally think financial stress is one of the worst things around, far worse than sliding around my husband in our small kitchen.
posted by pizzazz at 9:43 PM on February 16


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